ROSS SINCLAIR INTERVIEWED BY KATRINA M. BROWN
In 1996 Ross and I sat down in a room in his flat in Glasgow to try and work our way through his work to date for his first book, ‘Real Life' . It was at a time when he had worked his way - in videos, performances and installations through the first two years of his Real Life project. We discussed art, life and music, with The Stones' ‘(I Can't get No) Satisfaction' as something of a leitmotif, with all it says about rampant commercialism and individual aspirations.
Seven years later, we started again, in a bigger room, full of books, in a bigger house with the rare Scottish summer sun on the River Clyde and the hills beyond as our backdrop.
KB - Let's start with Utopia, why don't we? Your work certainly plugs into what's become a widespread engagement with Utopian projects or ideals in recent art. Mostly they appear in terms of the dark side of the shiny new future, failed utopias and so on. But I've always thought that what distinguished your practice is the politics; there is an on-going theme of both anarchy, or at least protest, and social control. You made, for example, ‘The Anarchist Library' – a deeply ironic order for disorder. Just looking at your bookshelves now – there's all sorts of intriguing things, how the world was mapped, how cultures manifest themselves. You are clearly much more drawn to the infrastructure of society – how people are governed, brought together, socialised – than the buildings or objects it has created. With you it's not about styles or design propositions as to how the material world might look, but a question of how did things come to be like this?
RS – What an opener…well, you mention books and it's true I've always been interested in those books that in a straightforward way imagine another way of life, whether utopian or dystopian but I'm really more interested in ideas like thos e someone like Alasdair Gray discusses in Lanark, his epic masterpiece or in fact in most of his books which have any kind of ‘historical' dimension. The characters and events in his books often inhabit the paradox or duplicity of living in the corrupted present but simultaneously inhabiting/imagining/inventing another place. Looking along the bookshelf here I see to books about mapping, about defining the limits of reality, plotting a course through Geography and History. I have some great books about cemeteries as a microcosm of society, architectural and social. But yes, I am fascinated by all those things that somehow demonstrate or define the order we try to give to our lives, which give it shape and form - coming from within and from without. What else is here…I have a bunch of books on expansion of the American West, many atlases, books on castles, churches, tree houses, medieval siege engines - a history of unrealised monuments of London, of the Baader Meinhof gang, the day Lincoln was shot, World fairs, vernacular architecture, the Klondike Rush photo special with great images of the instant infrastructures that sprang up within weeks, re-inventing all societies' needs…and of course all the Scottish stuff...
KB - I think you once talked about the ‘Real Life' projects as being some kind of temporary window for the audience to 'look towards these other horizons … where the way we live could be different. It's interesting when we're talking that you tend to use the word ‘audience' rather than ‘context'. In Bregenz, where you made ‘Fortress Real Life' the piece obviously played to the specifics of the Austrian context at that time
RS – Yes, it was at the time when everything was going on with Heider (spelling?)and the Freedom Party in the coalition government and I wanted to simply offer a space where people could say what they wanted. It was totally open – very basic.
KB - and with the St Kilda project previously - ‘Journey to the Edge of the World - The New Republic of St Kilda' - at the Fruitmarket in Edinburgh in 1999 it was happening at the very moment when the Scottish parliament was being created
RS – Yes, the show was in September and the Parliament had started in May, reconvened after 300 years.
KB – So how much of that is you seeking out a dynamic context for which to make work or is it rather about acknowledging the most likely platform from which you can talk to the audience? If they are sensitised to a particular agenda or issue at any point, is it that conversation element? Is it about content, material to feed into you or is it about finding a channel through which you can communicate with the audience? About place or people, I suppose?
RS – I had been interested in the idea of St Kilda for years, probably since before I made the Real Life Rocky Mountain (CCA Glasgow) piece in 1996. When I was researching St Kilda around 97/98 there were only 2 small paperback books in print, now there are dozens, hardback, even Colin Baxter has done one!. ( for non Scottish readers Baxter is a highly glossy, touristic photographer of a million Scottish postcards, calendars etc.)
I think in this case the project came about through these various events coalescing, coming together at a certain point in space and time and me functioning as some sort of conduit for them to flow through. I think ‘Hey, this is interesting. The Scottish Parliament's re-convening after three hundred years in a building that's 500 yards away from the gallery I'm making a show in.' And I'm simultaneously interested in this place St Kilda, an island community 100 miles off the coast of Scotland which survived for 2000 years with it's own unique society, which was destroyed within 100 years of contact with the modern world outside, with its money and religion after the industrial revolution made it easier to get there… It's no coincidence in terms of me developing the show that St Kilda had a so-called parliament too which met every morning to make all the important decisions of the day. This could sometimes take many hours as there was no quick show of hands to make a decision. Every important issue was talked through thoroughly, until a consensus was reached.
So the project all just fell into place – it was meant to be. A celebration of a new Parliament in Scotland after 300 years in abeyance re-imagined through the lens of the 70 th anniversary of the final evacuation of St Kilda when the last inhabitants left in 1930. Well it all made sense to me. I thought it was an appropriate moment for a re-examination of the utter failure of this previous micro-model of democracy and self-determination to survive within the machinations of the modern world – all set in this gallery in the shadow of our glorious new Scottish ‘independence'. I never went to St Kilda – I was more interested in it as an abstract idea, the idea that when the last people left in 1930 a vacuum was created which sucks in all our Utopian desires and fantasies, where they grow and flourish in a place of ‘melancholic beauty'. It is the supreme irony, of course, that this space is created and continues to exist only because this society of St Kilda could not exist in Real Life .
KB – The dream versus the reality. You often seem to want to wake people up to the reality of individual responsibility in society, to stop us slumbering through history. Your large-scale projects often engage the viewer in action or participation, or at the very least choices – like the two histories in the slide projection in the St Kilda Fruitmarket show (simultaneous histories of St Kilda and” The World” from the last 200 yrs ). Is that about triggering that sense of individual responsibility, the questioning that you mentioned? Trying to establish one's own position rather than readily adopting one that's on offer to you ready-formed, is very empowering. How much do you want to encourage that questioning of the world in the viewer?
RS – This was exactly the way the St Kilda project worked. I offered different histories, in film, in song, in maps, in ‘historical fact', in stories, in architectural form, in text, in feeling and in spirit. And in a non-hierarchical way I offered them all to the viewer. And it was also the absolute premise of Fortress Real Life in Bregenz as you mentioned.
I do think at the core of what I do I want to provoke some thoughts and feelings, as you say. But I'm aware that often when I'm invited to do a show and I go to the place, the space, the country, and I try to understand a whole idea of this context, which runs alongside my continuing research and practice and development as an artist/individual. I exist in the world at this point in time the same as everyone else. But I do think a lot about the audience in a socio-geographic, economic way – demographically, I suppose – but also really, most of all physically. How they come in to the space, how they navigate the show, how it unfolds for them. And I use that as a way to develop the work as if the audience was another formal element in the work – that's how they fit in – and I'm aware of that changing depending on the specific location and moment. There's so much goes in to the point of contact with an audience for me that in terms of thinking beyond that - well, for me that's the beginning of the work. That's perhaps more to do with the half of the work that the people bring with them. I think so much about that really specific moment of contact.
KB – About charging that moment ..
RS – Yes! That's a good way to put it – like a spark or something. When people aren't there, for me it's totally asleep.
RS – Ha Ha , well there the context pushes it wider. It was in this glass pavilion in a public park. It never sleeps. I suppose it became a sort of floating vitrine to gaze into when you're out walking the dog at night or whatever. But I loved the fact that at night the building ‘disappeared' and the neon slogans appeared to be floating in some kind of strange hyperspace among the trees, like some weird psychedeli mushroom vision.
KB – The neon signs flashed on and off – did you see that as a dialogue or was it all one voice?
RS – No, it felt like there was a strange discussion going on between the neon's, like some primitive dogmatic argument, it definitely gave a sort of organic, echoey feel. Formally there's a central core of ‘ Real Life and How to live it: Geography versus Work' in that version – those specific words flash on and off all the time, like a heartbeat at the core. It pulls together the two things on either side – depending on where you were looking at it from. Work - ‘Toe the Line', ‘Do the right thing', ‘Feel the Pain', ‘Work ‘till you Dro p' etc versus Geography - ‘Burn your Passport', ‘Abolish Geography', ‘Explode Borders' etc - it's not a literal dialogue but there is a certain poetic dimension. Pushing things together that don't literally make sense does create something new. Incidentally that friction between words doesn't often work when I've tried translating it – the anxious feeling between two statements which may exist in English often doesn't work in German, for example. But I think in the dark the formal effect of the work in Munster was like closing your eyes and seeing the light stuck on the back of your eyelids. At the same time crisp and precise but really also very organic and ambiguous. Like a half dreamt dream.
KB – And it's not just about what words mean but how they are used. The translation of a particular phrase might not be a used, common phrase in the other language or have the kind or references it does in English.
RS – Yes, absolutely, the key point is many of these phrases are not commonly used in English either. In fact many of them don't really make literal sense, even in English. The ten statements on each side in the pavilion were on a randomly generated flashing programme, so they appear to be deciding themselves when they come on and off, when to ‘talk', but of course they are trapped in an endless electrical circuit, although one which may never actually repeat. I really like using neon because it always for me has this idea still of being this exciting new medium, even though it's been around since the turn of the (last)century – it's this idea from the past of how we will communicate in the future. When everything's been decided and agreed, we can make it forever in neon. It's so stupid but kind of true. Maybe it reflects the desire for consensus, accord, certainty…maybe neon could be the new ‘carved in stone'. I enjoy that anachronistic tension.
KB – It's such a rigid form and I suppose that's where it's interesting, conceptually, in relationship to things like the list of do's and don'ts: although it's got this futuristic vibe, there's still only so much you can do within its confines
RS –. I like it that neon is fixed and definite and appears to be so authoritative but it's so fragile. I suppose neon is a kind of empty but instant encratic language, it disseminates a certain kind of power. I do like it because of that but also because it's so traditionally low culture, in a Vegas sense. And in the Wewerke pavilion it was great because you could have these phrases physically floating around in space, merging together like in a dream, maybe good, maybe bad, maybe both at the same time. Unfortunately, however good the pictures are can never really do it justice, like a lot of my stuff, watching a film of it would be better.
KB – That duality in the neon I suppose mirrors the double-edged nature of the ‘Real Life and How to Live It' texts, where you seem to balance critiques of anarchist utopia and free-market democracy. They are equally problematised. For example, the incitement to ‘Burn Your Passport', which appears in the Münster neon piece and in the mural you made in Leipzig ,” Real Life and How to Live it; Geography” seems like an anarchic gesture but these are prescriptive commands. There is an absolute irony in these ‘anarchist instructions'
RS –That mural in Leipzig was the first Real Life and How to Live It piece where I put the graphic list together. I'd had the idea floating around, but it got distilled on a couple of site visits for the Neues Leben show in Leipzig . The piece was inspired by these old DDR Soviet era murals that were fading away, getting covered up with all the new construction – no exaggeration – a big McDonald's that precisely covered over a mural that was about how great DDR youth clubs are. The entreaties of the communist era are literally and rapidly being replaced by the mantra of late capitalism. It's really Slogans of Reversal/Reversal of Slogans.The classic slogan I saw documented in Leipzig appeared on the windows of the main post office, ‘Those who go with the Soviet Union will be the winners in history' – a rough translation, but it sounds kind of good. I nearly called this book “Those who go with Real Life Will be the Winners in History”
KB – It's very like the spirit of some of those Christian hymns you've been using, ‘How Great Thou art” and so on, inspiring the believers to carry on into the brave new world, to fight the good fight …
RS – Exactly – but was it the good fight in this case? It was a complete ideology tailored to one particular state. You can't help but have this feeling visiting in the ex-DDR cities like Leipzig – as an outsider with little knowledge of course, I stress, – of certain strata of the population having a nostalgia for that past, the security, jobs for everyone, kindergartens for all the kids, no one had much money but that sometimes seems better than the uncertainty and venal chaos of the free market economy. I guess that's partly why re-unification is proving more difficult than imagined. Though maybe that's the same as anywhere else with everybody over 30 constantly moaning about the good old days.
KB – I suppose the Communist ‘project' was a kind of frontier – a systematic programme offering a new world order, new discipline, new structure, not dissimilar to your ideas about the Gold Rush towns …
RS – Well I guess it was one of the new frontiers but for me the politics of its aesthetics were also very important in relation to this seismic shift in the political/social paradigm. The mural I made was painted by some guys who did apprenticeships laying pipelines in Russia . Only 5 years older than me, but from a very particular generation, certainly in the context of a reunited Germany, that speaks perfect Russian but not much English, though these guys could do anything, start to finish, amazing. Anyway, the aesthetics, it's so anachronistic – the painting of murals in the 21 st century – there are simply so many better ways to do it. Normally now on buildings that are being renovated you get gigantic computer-generated bubble jet prints, of course. This is the medium of the message of the renovation/rehabliltation of free market capital. But I liked the mural format which was fixed with the old communist messages which no longer made sense – so permanent, forever like a tattoo rather than the fancy ‘t-shirt' of the new bubble jet facades. My ‘manifesto' hopefully proposed something completely different, another place, in between, a new space, a doorway, etched on the surface of this beautiful art nouveau building (Riquethaus) even if you could only think your way into it. But what is that, which makes the mural so totally different from the big photo print? I'm fascinated by that, maybe that's aesthetics, or maybe it's certainty and commitment.
KB – It must have been exciting to actually work on an existent building, a permanent, real structure, part of the local audience's everyday experience. You have so often created little buildings in various pieces, mostly huts or sheds, kind of temporary-feeling wooden structures, but you have also made a church … Dead Church Real Life.
RS – Yes, the temporary structures certainly imply a provisional feeling, a feeling of impermanence, even if they appear aggressive and daunting they are essentially a ‘paper tiger' being made from cheap wood etc. On the other side though, this analysis of assumed permanence and certainty and the power of ideology in religion is the foundation of a work like Dead Church Real Life. I make this church almost as if from a child's drawing, very simplified, just building blocks really and I push it over on it's side and invite the audience to go inside through a door, (which is now antithetical to the basic architectural form, almost like Alice in Wonderland) and sit on this pew in a sort of weird altered church. You sit under the red light of the Real Life neon (stained glass) and hear the angels singing from ‘on high' which is actually the sound from a video picturing me, my Real Life character sitting naked on a wooden floor signing old hymns. Although I don't believe in God and never went to church, there's just enough residual memories from funerals or whatever, just enough that these things that it somehow got inside me
RS – Here's our Christian model of society (the only one I have any experience of) that's totally worked out, linear, symmetrical, crystal clear. It proposes to provide all the answers in a world which is surely spinning to its imminent demise, partly because of the very existence of organised religion. It's like a self- fulfilling prophecy. For me, intellectually, it's all bullshit, but it's so seductive. And why the hell do I half know all these songs? Why do they make me want to cry? I mean - Where is the comfort and certainty we all need going to come from for the devout atheist?? In two minor chords, that's where… Ha Ha it doesn't fucking exist – does it ? But I guess that is what being alive and responsible for your own actions means. That's real self-determination. It's the same with the Scottish songs which I have performed in various works – they are part of some sort of national consciousness, whether you like it or not, unless you grew up in a cave with wolves somewhere. Home, Faith and Real Life . I tried to develop those themes a bit later in “ The Real Life Rock Opera Volume 1” . Though I think a discussion about faith and spirituality present in a work like Dead Church Real Life can only be interesting because me as the author, as the person who's opening up the discussion is absolutely riddled with all the problems, complexities and insecurities of the way we live as everyone else is. I've shirked my responsibilities, ignored problems, turned away like most other people in the west…I'm not an outsider, I'm not outside anything, I'm infected, rotten to the core, just like everybody else.
KB – Moving from you back to the audience and going back to the physical space of the gallery, thinking specifically about your South London Gallery show: that had a similar approach to what you've mentioned previously. To make the gallery into a very different place, but not in the sense of creating a realistic scenario, like maybe Gregor Schneider or Mike Nelson or others might, who would take on a room and turn it into a completely different space, with a specific and highly charged atmosphere. What you do is quite distinct from that. It's not a backdrop, not a scene or setting where unknown events may have occurred or be about to unfold – it's more architectural, though not about architecture …
RS – Yes, the cardboard boxes function almost as children's building blocks to build these imaginary spaces that didn't previously exist. It's not a re -creation of anything – it's not ersatz in that sense. It's a creation of a space that has never existed before, physically and intellectually (and probably never will again), in a space/gallery the viewer may know very well – but I want to make that place new again – for me and for them. That's another side of it in the whole Real Life project in the South London Gallery, and to a lesser extent perhaps in the show at Badischer Kunstverein. Having addressed so many of these various social or geographic structures over the years that underpin all our lives I wanted to put them together in a kind of Real Life village, or community, or cave or theme park or something.. So there were parts of various works, over a five year period, residues of works like Real Life Rocky Mountain , A Dream of the Hamnavoe Free State , the Gallows works, the St Kilda project, the flag paintings, the Real Life and How To Live It series, as graphics, Dead Church/Real life – all fragmented within a new narrative, a physical space which remains forever in some kind of psychological parenthesis. This idea is definitely something I want to look at again sometime – maybe like Brigadoon, only appearing every 200 years or whatever.
KB – The boxes you have used are associated with transition – moving house and so on. This seems to connect with you interest in frontier life, when everything has just been delivered or is about to move on
RS –Yes, the idea of the frontier town in ‘The Wild West' in the late nineteenth century. It was recent enough that, you know, you didn't really make it all from scratch. You could actually order all this stuff from Sears, which existed already. Genteel society on the East coast supplying the what might as well be the edge of the world on the other side of the same continent – you could order a in flat-pack Barn or Saloon of whatever from NY or Boston. I have a couple of books that have these great plans for, you know ‘Church: 50 seats, 100 seats or 150 seats' – the same kind of thing for houses and so on – all priced up and available from stock. I'm fascinated how this social structure grows exponentially. These frontier towns would start off as people waiting around because of the weather, or the route, or the water, or the supplies and then suddenly you'd need a saloon, because everyone wants a drink and then you need a jail to put everyone in who gets fucked up and then you need a brothel, and then you need a church and so on – Real Life form follows function! And it all happens in a couple of years, not a couple of centuries like usual – but then disappears just as quickly- and the key thing is that nobodies really ‘in charge' there is no planning per se, only desire lines.
KB –That's exactly it – what you're asking us to look at is not the style of church that was bought, but the fact that the church, the bar, the jail are all co-dependent elements in the infrastructure, that even when you go into a new, undeveloped site, these core features come with you, help take you take forward, underpin progress. So many of the references in your work are to do with the formative stages in the development of an individual or of society. You want to try to envisage what makes the world the way it is, or maybe even to imagine if we could start off differently. You at least want to make us aware of just how much structure there is. Do you also want to change it? Change the world, I mean. Is there a bit of guilt – Catholic, or any other variety – about trying to change things, make the world better, different, through your work? Like re-writing the history of St.Kilda by showing the evacuation film in reverse, or those various pieces that somehow try to imagine starting again
RS –Yeah, like I was saying before you might want your work to change the world but you don't necessarily want to give up your nice art life, your house, your kids, in my case your 20 year old Range Rover with the 3.5 litre V8 engine!!! But I do believe that's why I can raise these questions in my work, I'm not preaching – far from it - I'm guilty. Maybe that's the ultimate disappointment of Art - life . The politics is in there, but also there's a sense of not really believing in anything, but at the same time having been made, constructed by this society that purportedly believes in lots of things – but how do you make sense of things when the world seems so senseless? Countries, borders, languages – unbelievable – anywhere in Europe , you travel a couple of 100 kilometres and ther's a completely different language. How the hell did that happen? How did the map end up the way it is? Bring back Pangea! Seems so ridiculous. Most of my work is really about just trying to find some rhyme of reason to why the world turned out as it is.
KB – You should read George Monbiot's new book ‘The Age of Consent'. Basically, he weighs up anarchy against democracy and decides in favour of the latter. He argues that anarchy is impossible and we have to make democracy work; that anarchy can only exist in isolation – exactly like St.Kilda, actually– because as soon as another, neighbouring state comes into contact with it, you need some kind of a checking mechanism to stop one trampling over other. He proposes that the globalisation of consent – democracy – is the only answer. He also forces you to think about what change will actually mean for us in the comfortable, capitalist West. It seems like a good parallel for your work, where there is this anarchic strand, but it's always balanced with a more pragmatic awareness. I always loved, for example how you combined a selection of great militant protest songs with a sort of New Labour ‘focus group' ethic in I Never felt More Like Singing the Blues, when you busked in Holland, singing 10 of these protest songs and recorded how much each earned by the hour. As if someone would then analyse the findings to decide on the most ‘effective' song. That kind of cutting contrast between the voice of the state or the majority and that of the individual within in it, with the possibility of protest, is pretty striking in a scenario like Fortress Real Life …
RS - Of course it is significant that Fortress Real Life was realised in Austria in 2000 where a de-facto cultural boycott had been proposed after the rise of the right and the Haider/Freedom Party in the coalition government debacle. I thought this was crazy – my friends in Austria implored that a dialogue should be maintained. I wanted the people of Austria to come to the Fortress and simply to have their say , Un-mediated, Un-censored and on display in Kunsthaus Bregenz.
KB – How much did the architecture of the Kunsthaus prompt the structure do you think? The rigid logic of this extraordinary, hard-edged, hard-core rectilinear building?
RS – On one level I just wanted to get in there and fuck it up, make an absolute mess in there, get all these logs from the forest, get these apprentice carpenters I was working with coming in to chop them all up, cover the place in sawdust, swinging the big chain saw … challenge the inhumanness and hard beauty of the building with young people and noise and music. I wanted to have this structure that maybe if you found it in a forest, you'd play in it - to get people into it and involved. So simple – to go into this cathedral of modernism and to find this totally different type of place, defensible, one idea of a space within another existing idea of a space. Noah's Ark.
Generally, I find it's good dealing with these spaces that are made for culture and trying to offer a slightly different experience, a slightly different way of orienting the audience. If you can't think about this art space in a slightly different way from the normal what are your chances of trying to go anywhere else with it?
So as soon as you entered the Kunsthaus you saw this incongruous structure which appeared to have just materialised from another place, maybe another century!. The visitor was then invited to ascend into the Fortress by means of a grand staircase. The fort consisted of 2 distinct halves. The whole thing was about 16m x 8m x 6 or 7 high. You could then choose to enter the left side, where one could walk up and around the parapet, and then descend by the spiral staircase into the heart of the fort where hundreds of blank placards, the kind you would see at a political rally, were stacked. The visitor was then invited to use the paints and brushes provided to paint whatever they felt was appropriate, inspired by the fort, on these placards, and the finished placard were displayed on the upper ramparts, for all to see. A sign stated simply Mal Was Du Denkst- Paint what you think . This produced a fascinating mix of Sunday painting, political sloganeering, abstract colour field painting and much more which seen together displayed on the fort, displayed an ongoing, urgent conversation in which each new visitor could participate. If the visitor went to the right half of the fortress one would enter into a simple wooden arena, where you could choose from a variety of simple musical instruments and play, alone or in dialogue, with other visitors. Art and music – my two favourite things in the world. Visitors could walk from the painting area on the floor on the other side of the fort and the arena than became a glorious stage where a strange kind of amateur orchestra could be seen/heard. One could perform a new composition for the idea of this different, other place, an anthem for a non-nation, or simply an empowering creative act of making a fucking racket. In one way the fort enabled a personal dialogue with the Kunsthaus Bregenz itself, one of the most dramatic and controversial new buildings in Europe . I wanted to just set this scenario and see what happened. I thought each day when the placards were displayed a top the ramparts there would be a passionate debate displayed about the politics of left and right. I wanted the space to be open for any discussion – and insisted they be publicly displayed
KB - And what did happen?
RS - Well, there was far more of a predilection for painting than I thought. It was more shocking than any political posturing. I thought it would be all slogans but it was mostly people doing nice wee paintings without taking off their fur coats but that joy of materials was actually quite nice in this context. The rest was all classic liberal ‘Down with Heider! and the right - Up with the multi-coloured children of the world!' kind of thing, which is not bad, of course. There was no dialogue really, just a monologue from the art world liberal left – and a love of painting. Perhaps in the end I was assimilated by the boot boy modernism of the Kunsthaus itself. Ha,ha . But I think Fortress Real Life functioned on many different levels and the focus was somewhere quite different from the place I had first imagined. I provided the structure and had an expectation of what might happen. But the audience, the visitors, the people came to the work and it became activated, alive, the final piece of the jigsaw in place. That's the beginning of the work again – when the audience come in.
KB – The structure of Fortress Real Life was more coded or formal perhaps than others – it spoke of other types of place. The other structures you've created – using the flags or the cardboard boxes - materials not used for actual buildings. But this was actually a fortress …
RS – Yes but I decided to compete with the Kunsthaus itself so it had to have more weight, almost to give it a ship in a bottle feeling of “how did this get in here?' But is still important for me that I invented it in quite a form follows function way. I wanted this two-sided thing - two big cylinders; one for the painting side and one with the ‘orchestra' which almost like an anatomy theatre – a gladitorial arena of amateur music – with all the musical instruments in it, but no space for an audience.
KB – So there was space to perform but not to spectate?
RS – Well, hardly any space. On the other side the placards were being painted, but there were wee walkways round the top to look out from – the ramparts I guess. That was part of the form of it to build something that starts with, well, here's a whole pile of logs it's a Platonic ideal…but kind of ad hoc – It was a building for sure – but within the Kunsthaus, dwarfed in the glass and concrete. This offers a contrast, on the one hand warmth and trees and wood from the forest, living things, the hand-made, the amateur vs. the industrial might of high culture – but of course absolutely assimilated by it too.
KB – It's also perhaps one of your most generous pieces, in terms of what it offers the audience – as its proposition was as much about the invitation to do something, to act in this space, as it was about physical presentation ….
RS – Yes, that was really part of me trying to absent myself from the work a bit more. That is in terms of performance and my Real Life character being always active, present in the work in some form. Sometimes it's important but it's too much all the time. So Instead of the dialogue being with the audience always watching me in the flesh - the walking Real Life tattoo - some time ago I began to reposition that relationship to make the viewer the active character. I wanted to articulate the relationship between an audience and “the stage” – Real Life / Spectacular Life, or us and them – the other side of the TV screen, whatever.
The first real example of that was with the ping pong (Real Life vs. The World,O.K. Linz ), which came about from just thinking, what's a really simple sort of way to trigger a dialogue? It's in a lot of other works, the Gallows series, and many others. There's a task, another person there. The first time I used it was in Linz in 1999 and then in Karlsruhe . There's a sign that reads ‘ping pong can be played irrespective of language, culture, physical strength, gender…' – an invitation to pick up a bat and play with another person, but within a .very specific configuration of elements There's a big bucket of ping pong balls to make it easy. You don't have to keep running for the ball when you miss a shot. And at the end the whole floor of flags is covered with the balls, which had ‘Real Life' stamped on them. I liked the metaphor of the ping pong ball with ‘Real Life' on it is always in play, always moving back and forward – or hundreds of Real lifemoments, crushed underfoot on the floor.
KB – That seems like the most explicit metaphor for dialogue there's been in your work – were you happy with it?
RS – Well, it was modest, almost dumb but fluid and good fun but in the context of the elements surrounding it - completely enveloped by the black flags with this red stacked ‘seating amphitheatre' around being a pseudo parliamentary thing: have your say, the world is watching proclaimed my wee sign – it was a bit menacing looking, but just cardboard boxes. Having fun and playing in this intense atmosphere – fiddling while Rome burns – maybe.
KB – Having set up this open invitation again in Fortress Real Life – did it make you nervous? Did you come over all control freak? Did you find yourself thinking ‘that's not what I wanted you to do!'?
RS – Not really .. I thought of it like Noah's Ark , that was one of the banners which surrounded the fortress - another thing I find fascinating - this idea of this capsule to another time, another place. I like the idea that you take this detour, go away for a while and when you come back everybody, everything is somehow different. People could get in and paint themselves into the future, make music , make a stand – maybe like Henry Flynt's ‘Demolish Serious Culture'. But it wasn't just about the activity, I always want to give it some definite shape. Well, to answer your question I'd say to be honest you're absolutely right. I am quite a control freak when it comes to work actually but only insofar as the work has to be correct before the audience comes in – not in terms of what they might do…
KB – Real Life has now had quite a long life as a ‘brand' – is that how you think about it? It's been through a couple of versions – the round bubbly 1970s one, the simple, clean modernist one …
RS – These are just the formal propositions referring to the Real Life iceberg that lies beneath the surface. It works in the same way for me as things like the images of flags, that I‘ve utilised for years – loaded images, symbols that have no intrinsic meaning but have a definition, have a meaning accrued to them. They stand in for something in terms of moral imperative but are really formally quite vacant – like the Union Jack: it can have a diametrically-opposed meaning to different people. The meaning is something you put into it, you decide. But over the years I've come to understand that this Real Life character, which is obviously me, but not me , functions - whether as text or a photographic image or the character himself present - in the same way that a writer would use a character in a series of stories, or books. He is set in different situations, different problems, different solutions but the character remains essentially the same. A benchmark or a standard.
KB – And similarly to the flags and so on, I suppose it becomes about that act of investment – what you choose to invest in something rather than what it inherently holds. It was interesting, for example when you made the I Love Real Life neon's, which were sited in various ‘loaded' locations ..
RS –With I Love Real Life there's none of that ‘meaning' to begin with but there's a similar blankness waiting to be defined, to be filled up with something – it puts the onus on the viewer to ‘make sense' of it.
KB - It speaks of empty symbols at the same time as implying an alternative
RS – You can take it or leave it. The neon's were installed in various places – a church, police station, hospital, school, town hall and so on - in Bremen . It was like a virus had colonised all these places – but what does it mean? I wanted the morgue and a brothel and a prison too but we couldn't get the access. I made this project again as a market stall, in various cities with lots of popular merchandise and the differences in understanding and assumption are very interesting, though the message is the same. In the market stall version everyone thought it must be a promotion for something, but what? T-shirts and hats and mugs and pens and key rings and posters all proclaiming I Love Real Life – but to what end? “ What are you selling?” People asked, “What's it all about- what does it mean?”
KB – The other ‘sign' that has re-appeared in your work is Europa Endlos which you first made for an exhibition in Bremen in 1993 and more recently installed on the roof of the Kunsthaus in Bregenz.
RS – Well it's appeared a couple of times but again it was the context that suggested it's most recent incarnation. I made this work at the same time as the Fortress Real Life work at Kunsthaus Bregenz and tapped into some of the same responses to the amazing architecture and primarily the location. I made the sign attached to the roof of the Kunsthaus with individual letters each 2 m high, spread out over 26m, illuminated at night, it looked fucking great. Bregenz in Austria lies at the head of the Bodensee, the biggest lake in Europe, a sliver of Austria hemmed in between Switzerland and Germany , a matter of a few kilometres away on either side. Coming from Scotland on the western periphery of Europe, it is fascinating to fly to Zurich , get the train through the mountains of Switzerland into Austria , ‘deep in the heart of historic Europe ' . Bregenz seems a very rich town to me, and has a curiously 19th century feel to its grand promenades, gardens, palaces and postcard-views. It has been a summer holiday town for 300 years.
KB - So you brought Kraftwerk to the seaside? ???
RS – Yes ! The title Europa Endlos itself comes from their 1977 record, ‘ Trans Europe Express' . It's a very simple lyric, at least in English, – only six lines or so with ‘Europa Endlos' repeated like a mantra. A couple of the lines are “Europa Endlos Europa Endlos ‘Parks, hotels and palaces / Promenades and avenues / Real life and postcard views' – it's sort of perfect .
Of course Kraftwerk embodied, in their day, the apotheosis of modern music, all electronically created yet paradoxically in this song discussing, as I saw it, the dubious and decadent history of a Northern European Tradition. This creates a dynamic tension between the form and content. In a sense, my piece functions in a similar way with the building on which it rests. The Kunsthaus, designed by Swiss architect, Peter Zumtor is an award winning piece of ultra modernism – post modernism – who know s? It is 95% concrete and glass, and has no external walls, simply a curtain of glass panels. This building, arrogant, alienating, yet very beautiful somehow encapsulates, for me, a certain northern European (or perhaps simply late capitalist) cultural (arrogant) tradition. EUROPA ENDLOS , 30m up and 25m long, is perched on top of this modern classic, like a cheap continental hotel of a hypothetical future Europe . It sits at the head of the largest lake in Europe , surveying it's territory. Of course the critical paradox is that the text Europa Endlos in itself is completely ambiguous, and functions in such a way as to transparently position the viewer depending on their beliefs and politics. Endless, to whom, for whom, by whom and when? Apparently Peter Zumtor really hated it and who could blame him? Not me anyway
KB – It's quite an empty, ambivalent phrase. It works as both positive and negative: ‘great, we've got something that will last forever and we don't have to worry about it', or a really hideous prospect, of everything being uniform, bland, all the same everywhere and forever
RS – It's also great in the song because they are so deadpan – impossible to tell whether it's a critique or not but with the imminent expansion of Euroland combined with the growing geo-paranoia surrounding a new terrorist ‘threat' it seemed like a good time to see what the Bregenz holidaymakers thought it might mean.
KB – That idea of a model society comes across in lots of your work, but especially in the way you treat text. It is often rendered using some sort of simple model – the typefaces, stencils – techniques or styles that are quite primary, not processed, over-stylised graphics. Like model letters, pure symbols, the simplest, most straightforward way of writing text, communicating – trying to get away from anything aesthetically sophisticated. Recently you have fused these ideas about model systems and so on with explicit references to education. I'm thinking specifically here about your show at Yvon Lambert in Paris in 2002, the “Real Life Old School” installation, which used a kind of class-room vibe – with blackboards and maps and so on as well as some photographs of you and Grace in Glasgow School of Art – your own alma mater
RS – For me Real Life Old School/Somewhere there is a place for us is reflects on learning, childhood pedagogy, ‘The Academy' and education generally. How exposure to new ideas change the way you think. My relationship with my daughter – everyone's relationship with their children, I hope – the worlds' relationship with their children!! Maybe that's a bit ambitious. One of the lines from my ABC Song which goes along with part of this piece is These letters could make any words…but I'm stuck with you”… Perhaps reflecting a melancholic inevitability of the loss of the uniqueness of an individual's potential through institutions like education – there could be so many options endless possibilities but words are such crude ways to articulate our world. Homogenised structures seem so inadequate in responding to the needs of the individual, particularly children. The work is divided into 2 or 3 spaces depending on the installation. I make a little corridor to get the audience in there and to distance them slightly from the ‘outside world'. They see one of 2 neon's at the entrance or exit - – Real Life Old School , or Old School Real Life.
Then you emerge into a ‘schoolroom' made entirely from cardboard boxes, with a rough wooden floor, this is the first space proper. You hear music, this children's ABC Song, but somehow different. I sang it in English and then got some friends to sing it in French and German to emphasise the precariousness of the translation and the potential for misunderstanding, not really of languages necessarily but of all communication of ideas or ‘education'. There are 13 double sided children's chalkboards each with a letter of the alphabet, in neon showing A through to Z. There is a colourful banner on each wall REAL - LIFE - OLD SCHOOL and a map made of felt, upside down and the wrong way round with the words “Le Monde Des colours” at the bottom . But overall the atmosphere is a bit odd. In the next little space there are some large framed photos with my Real life Character pictured with a small child, in what looks like a museum or old Academy. The child is of course Grace, my daughter and the academy is, as you say, The Glasgow School of Art where I studied and have worked for years.
Finally in the last space you hear a different song – the words “Somewhere there is a place for us…” mirror neon words attached to a strange collection of objects. in front of a large banner which simply reads “Somewhere” Paddles, broken Guitars, perhaps methods of transportation to this other place, physically or in your head with these fragmented neon words attached.
Anyway, One thing that's always important is the strangeness of this new space I've made within an existing space, that's not the point of the work, but I want to transport the viewer to an uncertain destination before we begin our dialogue. Perhaps then we are both discovering this new place together. I can't remember who said “the past/history is another country” but maybe that's true of the present(and certainly the future) too.The songs are very important for me too, increasingly so. Not just as a backdrop but as a fundamental component of the work. On the Somewhere song you can hear my daughter Grace talking at the beginning and for me the songs are an important formal/physical element to the work, just as important and the ‘sculptural' elements.
KB – And I know you are working on a Real Life Rock Opera. Although you are not making use of the canon of guitar rock that featured in much of your practice in the early 90s, you still seem to enjoy the capacity to integrate music into your work ..
RS – The Real Life Rock Opera Volume 1 exists as a CD I've recorded which combines my own songs with old Scottish Songs and old religious songs. There are a whole bunch of sculptures that go with it, based on each individual song. In contrast to earlier ways of using the music, I've spent a year recording this, on and off, and it's much more of a band sound, although I played it all myself. It's subtitled Home, Faith, Real Life and seeks a way to understand what these terms could mean, in the 21 st century. One version is made for The Travelling Gallery, here in Scotland which is the gallery/bus that travels around Scotland with it's cargo of Art, visiting schools and colleges and car parks and the highlands and islands, giving out 10000 cds on route.. I thought it was a very exciting context for the work, something interesting, challenging.
KB – So there are still contexts out there that are stimulating? Still conversations to be had?
I think there definitely are and that turns me round when I'm thinking “What's the point of making art?” I think the thing is that anything's possible – and you have to make it up every time. But sometimes you wonder If you stopped doing it tomorrow, would anyone notice? I talk to my students about this quite often. You really need to have so much energy, enthusiasm, a bit of arrogance, thick skin … just to keep going. Maybe it would be better to just have a job, stop work at five o'clock and so on. But on the other hand, thinking about potential new ideas – directions – dimensions - dialogue and audiences, in the visual arts, it's an exciting moment – I can make anything I like – it can be quite autocratic – I can use music, sound, , installation, space, time, 2D, 3dD, 5D!, film, video, send things out to people, do something in the street, give things away for free, use all these materials – and all at the same time preferably. It's hard to think of any other artform that's so open. And the idea of the moment of contact with an audience is a strong one for me. That moment… Perhaps that charged moment you mentioned earlier, that first moment of super charged contact with another person. That's the only one that can't be bought. Can't be sponsored by Becks or anyone. Perhaps its one of a few moments in your life where you can experience something in the raw, not vicariously, that isn't actually trying to sell you something – apart from a new way of looking at your life.
KB – Yes, that is a real strength but it is also anti-virtuosity in a way –you don't get any great recognition or acclaim for a particularly adept andnovel twist of neon, for example. It is more about the big picture of how things are brought together. You can pick up a different skill every week. That combining of elements seems to be getting more complex in your recent work. Materially, it often seems to mirror that conceptual duality of anarchy and democracy or naivety and pragmatism: the two-fold thing that is dialogue, like the cardboard versus the neon. You do now seem to be more at ease with materials, objects in your work – not just the existent objects:blackboards, guitars, and so on – but, dare I say, more sculptural …
RS – Yes. I do have a pathological desire to fill every inch of space I work in .. I always envy other artist's ability to make the context work for them with the slightest of means. Me, I have to be up on a ladder, touching every corner – t-shirts, flags – want to feel that I've mapped every inch of it – understand it - and the neon does that in quite a good way because it makes the whole space work
KB – Do you think that's a kind of honesty? If you're seeking to pose these questions about life and how you live it, maybe you need to be in amongst it, you can't leave it to someone else ..
RS – Yes, maybe it is a kind of quid pro quo – the love you give is the love you get … my one concern about it is that in a deep seated psychological way I'm desperately trying to please, to justify, show I'm working really hard
KB –But you also seem to inscribe some element of resistance in your work – that resists the full seduction, there's always some sort of subversion.
RS - Probably because I was baptised a Catholic but never confirmed – I'm probably in this eternal limbo …
RS – yes, this search, self-flagellation ...never feeling content
RS – Maybe more of a Real Life Work Ethic, though I grew up in a very Protestant atmosphere. All my friends supported Rangers – although I supported Partick Thistle ..
RS – Absolutely!